Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from author Maggie Jackson’s most recent book, “Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure,” to be published Nov. 7 by Prometheus Books. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Like many people across the world, I got hooked on year-round ocean swimming during the pandemic. I learned which apps to check for wave height and wind velocity on the stretch of Rhode Island coast where I swim almost daily with a band of fellow devotees. We gained a sense of local currents and when to opt for the shelter of a nearby harbor.
Yet for all of our accrued experience, each morning’s swim remains far more a bundle of questions than answers. How long can you last even with a wetsuit in a 38-degree January sea? Will the dawn fog lift or make the beach perilously invisible? In the midst of it all, we mostly just don’t know.
And that uncertainty, I’ve come to realize, has been a major reason why these daunting, improvisational, joyful mornings have been so uplifting, not just for body but mind. With every stroke, I’m discovering the cognitive treasure in being unsure.
Not-knowing as strength? That seems a contradiction in terms. It’s easy to feel as if we are drowning in unknowns, or what scientists call aleatory uncertainty. Economic and geopolitical uncertainty has been slowly rising since the 1990s, with sharp spikes in recent years, according to analyses by Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom.
Why linger in the indefinite in volatile times? Why in particular seek epistemic uncertainty, that uneasy sense of not-knowing that grips us when we confront anything murky or new? Today, sure-fire answers are what we usually seek.
Yet now is the time when we can least afford to retreat into fortress certainty and miss out on the unsung opportunities for growth and wisdom offered by being unsure. My daily doses of not-knowing hint at what a new science of uncertainty is uncovering: This mindset is a path to curiosity, adaptability and resilience, the very cognitive skills needed in times of change.
“Uncertainty shakes you out of your complacency and makes you more attuned to new information,” says neuroscientist Joseph Kable of the University of Pennsylvania. “It plays a role in setting up the brain to learn.”
How does uncertainty expand our cognitive horizons? Think of the unease you may feel on the first day of a new job or when you encounter surprise roadwork on your commute. When you experience something new, ambiguous, or unexpected, stress hormones and chemicals flood the brain. At that moment, a mismatch erupts between old expectations and new realities. You don’t know, a state of mind linked to stress symptoms such as dilated pupils, sweaty skin and higher cortisol. We are built to crave answers. Not-knowing unsettles us — and that is precisely why we benefit from this mindset.
As we confront something new, powerful neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine boost the mind’s receptivity to new data, fire up cognitive circuits that flexibly control focus and prime brain regions to engage in information-sharing. Within milliseconds, the tripwire of not-knowing interrupts our current program of action, invoking cognitive systems needed to update a now-outmoded understanding of the world.
The arousal sparked by uncertainty puts us right where we should be in times of flux, at the raw edge of change. “You want to be most stressed by the most unpredictable situations,” says Robb Rutledge of Yale University. “It means we’re in tune with the environment.”
In other words, it pays to lean into uncertainty in times of change. In a study published in 2016, Rutledge and colleagues showed images of various rocks to volunteers and asked them to guess where snakes were hiding. The players could earn money by learning the game’s hidden patterns; speckled rocks might be safe this round, gray boulders a danger. But they couldn’t escape the stress of the game: They got a mild shock when a snake appeared, regardless of whether their prediction had been right. The play was most taxing when the rules changed. But during those periods of high uncertainty, some players rose to the occasion.
People whose stress levels were most attuned to the game’s fluctuating levels of uncertainty made the most accurate predictions. In essence, they recognized the essential dynamism of life. By clinging to a belief that a situation is stable when it is not, we are less likely to pick up on shifting realities, studies show. The best players, in contrast, mustered the sweat equity needed to wake up to times when the world was inviting them to learn. Norepinephrine is a marker of cognitive effort.
This is one reason why chief executives who are ambivalent in a crisis tend to be more resourceful than the ultra-decisive leaders we so often admire, research shows. By embracing the challenge of uncertainty, we become alive to possibilities.
And thus, we are more likely to be curious. One of the key elements of a curious disposition is being willing to explore new, mysterious or complex situations, despite their unsettling nature, according to studies led by Todd Kashdan of George Mason University. “Curious people try a lot of things and they do feel uncomfortable doing so, but that’s not stopping them from doing it,” says Paul Silvia of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. At work, people high in this facet of curiosity are more likely to voice dissent, seek challenges and be engaged.
Intriguingly, this capacity for pushing into the discomfiting unknown also is the facet of the curious personality most correlated with measures of well-being, including positive emotions. Echoing this link, young adults who before the pandemic scored higher on a measure called “intolerance of uncertainty” struggled more mentally during the peak scourge than peers who viewed the challenge of uncertainty as less inherently problematic, according to research led by Stephanie Gorka of Ohio State University.
It may seem surprising that people who can cope with and are even drawn to disquieting not-knowing take such delight in life. But it is our capacity to be open to times of ease and disquiet alike that buoys body and mind. By treating opaque surprises and broken expectations as chances to learn, we can spend our days steeped in wonder, not fear.
Today, however, we seem to be increasingly fearful of being even momentarily unsure. Hyper-checking smartphones that offer neat, instant answers may reduce “everyday exposures to uncertainty,” writes Nicholas Carleton of the University of Regina in Canada. Intolerance of uncertainty has risen in parallel with the use of smartphones and the internet, he found in a meta-analysis of data from 1999 to 2014.
Meanwhile, leaders who briefly deliberate in public about a new, thorny problem are rated as less competent than executives who respond instantly. It is time to stop running from a mindset that is key to human flourishing. Uncertainty is not the problem that we take it to be, but rather a font of opportunity.
One day, fellow swimmer Stephen Bird and I were approaching a sprawling offshore rock that we often like to encircle to end the morning’s adventure. The water was seething. It was hard to know what we would find on the other side of the rock, roughly 700 feet from shore and fully exposed to the roiling Atlantic.
Pausing, Stephen looked back at me and summed up the edginess of the moment. “This is it,” he called over his shoulder. “There’s 2,000 miles of nothing out there — it’s scary and it’s great at the same time.”
I knew what he meant. The rock symbolizes where our limits lie, for the edge of what we know. And each morning that’s just where we want to be — and what makes us stronger. “Let’s do it,” he urged. And off we went.